Are designer babies the last, and most morally dubious, frontier of customization?
When a couple is expecting, idyllic conversations veer towards what the baby will be like. “I hope he gets your brown eyes.” “I hope she gets your incredible memory.” It’s a sweet fantasy woven around someone whose features and talents parents essentially have no control over, despite being wholly responsible for its oncoming existence. But modern technology tells us nothing is out of our control. Not even giving your child piercing blue eyes, a soprano’s voice, or a devilish genius in mathematics.
The term designer babies is somewhat of a misnomer. It creates the image of high-brow, dissatisfied, extravagantly wealthy to-be parents with a checklist of perfect qualities to bestow upon their unborn child – consent be damned. The reality is much more sobering. The first genetically modified children were those conceived by an HIV-positive couple in China – an attempt to suppress the gene that could give them the same incurable fate. But the ensuing controversy, public censure, and imprisonment of the doctor in charge, Dr. He, led to the outlaw of genetic modification of foetus genome in China. At the same time, the world wasn’t far behind in condemning all experiments in this regard.
Today, somatic modification is still possible – localized modification of cells in a specific body part like the eye or the liver. They are usually used to treat a grave illness that could severely hamper the child’s quality of life. But, unfortunately, it is still wildly expensive and thus inaccessible to the majority population of the world.
Nowadays, hardly anyone bats an eye at the mention of in-vitro fertilization, sperm donors, viable egg donors, or surrogacy. It’s all kosher. Reproductive science hasn’t waited for people’s delicate sensibilities to catch up. Those offended by the unnaturalness of it protest sometimes, but the desire to have healthy, happy children is a universally recognized one and thus trumps our discomfiture with lab babies and the ungodliness of it.
It seems innocent enough… But is it?
Before where we stand religiously, morally, or ethically, the fact is that human genetic modifications are a kind of risky gamble akin to sitting at a poker table with no cards at all. No genetic change, even somatic, can be hundred percent clear of mutation, inheritance, or impact on other traits that it is seemingly unrelated to. The human body is an elegant machine, finely crafted, but its design is a biological black box. One cannot fathom the domino effect of genetic tweaking, however non-intrusive it may seem. In the case of Dr. He, the genetic modification went off track, but the twins blessedly escaped its worst effects. Neither is more resistant to HIV, as he claimed.
Philosophically, is it the ultimate gamble – to love your child so much you want their life to be safe, convenient, without troubles, even if it means to weed out their so-called undesirable traits before life begins? Does it mean you don’t trust them to withstand the curveballs life will throw? How many obstacles can even be removed? Remove your child’s fear of loud sounds, but they may still shake before public speaking. Remove their fear of public speaking, and they may still be susceptible to insomnia. Sometimes, loving your children means to understand that they’re not your possessions to protect but a spirit to nurture, ultimately destined to lead uncharted lives in an unpredictable world. Instead of controlling their traits and weeding out their purported negatives, it might be a much more successful experiment to teach them to love themselves and never doubt their capabilities because a hardy spirit trumps genetics, each time.